MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR (FINAL)

MEMOIR: TIME TRAVEL AND MEMOIR

Suppose you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to try to help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. At age sixteen, he discovered, the hard way, that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.

Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in the play. The sets had been changed, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of the play, the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret—and it turned out that she was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.

Act III of the play covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, morbidly obese, lost in midnight seas, and, worse, his medication no longer working. He’s in trouble. He’s taking on water. He’s sinking.

His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but turns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the like of which our protagonist has never known, and from which he is still recovering, a year after leaving hospital.

It was an experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it, but in writing about my experience last year, I saw that I needed to address the influence of the illness across my entire life.

The thing about mental illness is that it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap your mind with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t think. Your whole sense of who you are as a person is tangled up in cobwebs.

Pretty soon you’re dead inside. You’re barely able to get out of bed. You could sleep for a thousand years. You believe that most people would not miss you if you were to die. You imagine some people would be relieved and pleased to be rid of you. People you know would think this about you. Your friends on Facebook and Instagram. Members of your family would be pleased to be spared the burden of dealing with you and your crap.

This is the cobwebs talking. This is depression.

When you have major, heavy-duty clinical depression, it will try to kill you. It will talk to you about how you can help all the people around you by getting out of their way. The cobwebs lie. Your friends and family love you. Stay. Please stay. Get help. We love you. Stay.

I’ve been fighting the cobwebs all my life, but especially this past year. It’s been a brutal year. When I was sixteen and first diagnosed was a bad time, too—but I would still rate last year as worse. You’ll see.

I can, by now, deal with the cobwebs and all the bollocks that goes with them on my own. But sometimes I need help to deal with the ones out of my reach, and for those I have an excellent clinical psychologist, who has a very long stick. I would not be here without her and her big long stick.

Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs, too. I have done my best to scrape out everything, no matter how personal, how private, how intense, and put it in here for you to see. I have this idea that my cobwebs might resonate with your cobwebs. If I talk about my stuff, especially the really hard stuff, it might help someone else talk about their really hard stuff.

Mental illness, and especially male mental illness, needs to be brought out of the darkness. When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s it was all secret and terrifying. My dad had a terrible time, and there was no talking about it. There was this awful fraught silence. That deathly silence is a big part of why I wanted to write this book.

All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I were fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when it is possible to write and speak about it.

I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown. If I visited that evening, what might I see? A boy, crying so hard he’s worried he might die from it, that something might happen. The boy’s mother, my mum, much younger than I’m used to seeing her, holding the boy’s hand, stroking it, talking to him, doing her best to soothe him, to help him armed only with the magic of love. On the other side of the bed is a nurse, doing much the same thing, only in a professional capacity.

And there in the centre, that poor young bastard, afraid that he’s flying apart. That he’s burning up on re-entry. He’s just had surgery to remove his appendix, but he’s also just failed a bunch of upper high school exams. He believes he’s doomed, a failure.

I want to tell that poor kid that this is not the end of his life. This is his new life being born. Everything gets better from here—though admittedly not for a long, long time, and the road gets harder before it gets better.

It’s a seven-year slog, and he’ll one day look back on it and call it his “Years of Hell”, and it begins on this volcanic night in 1979 and ends in August 1986, on the fateful, lucky, sunny day when he first meets Michelle.

This is a book of fragments and shards. My dad, back when he was a motor mechanic, used to have these huge trays full of screws, nuts, washers, bolts, and all manner of odd mechanical gewgaws, glinting dully in his workshop light, and all of it a bit sticky with a film of oil. How I hated having anything to do with any of that stuff! But that’s this book. It’s a big random mess of parts. It’s got stories from my whole life. There’s bits from when I was a kid growing up in the “Space Age” 1960s to right this week and everything in between, including my histories of mental illness and obesity, because I’ve always believed the one was a manifestation of the other.

All my life I had to pretend I was normal, but I wasn’t normal. Everybody told me so. I was wrong in all kinds of ways. First I was just weird and strange, but then I was sick. I was still pretty weird, too. And I had to hide it all, weird, sick, the lot. I had to seem normal at all times. It was the most important thing in the world. It was impossible. That strain, that impossible task, and what it did to me, is what this book is about.

MEMOIR: THE NOISE

MEMOIR: THE NOISE

The noise in my head is telling me to shut up. It says I talk too much. It says I’ve said too much already. Recently both my doctor and my psychologist told me I was doing fine, and I felt pretty decent at the time, but almost immediately I felt the familiar noise in my head return, the screaming, the abuse, the criticism. The noise hates that I’ve written this book about it. It tells me the book will fail, that it will blow up in my face, that Internet trolls will destroy my life.

It’s been months since I wrote most of this book. For much of that time, I found that when I go to try a bit of writing, immediately the noise pipes up, and right away I’m plagued with self-consciousness. This hyper-acute sense that I never stop talking about myself, that I’m the most conceited man in Australia, that I need to shut up or find something else to write about. I’m full of acute, blistering, embarrassment—except it’s a form of embarrassment that feels like nuclear sunburn, that makes you want to run, scrambling for cover, away from the screaming glare, from the noise.

I have a powerful urge to delete everything. The noise hates me writing. The noise has always hated me writing. Children should be seen and not heard. Nobody likes a show-off. Don’t rock the boat. The noise has always told me these things. Screamed these things, over and over, reminding me, reinforcing them, killing me with them. It hates me writing. It hates me posting my work in public where people can see it—and that’s why I do it, and that’s why I can hardly stand to do it. Why I find it nigh-unbearable, putting the chapters up, exposing myself, believing that there are countless people out there on Facebook who hate it when I put these pieces up, who are all, That bloody Bedford, showboating his “oh poor suffering me, waah!” sooky bullshit again!

The noise makes me believe there are all these people out there, even now, who never say anything, not even privately, but who secretly think this way. Who despise me. They are proper Facebook friends, and do all the usual Facebook friend stuff, wishing Happy Birthday and liking the Freckle photos and so forth—but nonetheless implacably, silently hostile to my chapter posts.

It doesn’t have to make sense.

The thing about the noise is that it’s NOISE. It’s LOUD. It dominates. It controls. It rules your thinking, and leaves no space for your own thinking. I call it the noise, but you could call it madness. You could call it any one of the mental illnesses. It’s thought distortion. Reality distortion.

The noise wants me to burn this book. It hates the book.

There are times, bad times, when I feel inclined to go along with it. That it seems like a good idea. Because, remember, ruling, controlling thoughts. It controls my horizontal and my vertical. It controls my everything.

The noise hates that I learned how to express myself. That I found a way out of the box. The noise is LOUD even when it’s winning, when I’m cooperating. But when I’m not, when I’m writing—and when my writing goes out into the world—

The noise wants me to burn this book. Destroy the book.

How it hates this book. It hasn’t liked any of my writing, just on principle—but this book, this book is something else. This book is like a stage magician writing a book revealing how all the illusions are done. This book is about the noise. This book shows you the noise. Pulls the curtain aside, and reveals the nasty, tiny, wizened, spidery, pale little creature who’s been sitting on a very high stool behind a big audio mixing desk all this time.

I’m not burning the book.

I’m not deleting the book.

I believe there is something—maybe not much, maybe only a little—worthwhile in what I’m doing here. Maybe my noise will resonate with your noise. Maybe your noise has been screaming abuse at you all your life, too, and it’s time you looked behind your curtain.

I’ll tell you one important, true thing, though.

You know the noise, ultimately, is nothing. It’s a feeble little ugly homonculus with a sound system. Yay.

But the noise still gets to you. It still fills up your entire head. It still controls your horizontal and your vertical.

It still makes you feel like you should burn your book, because you truly are the most conceited bastard in Australia, and people really are sick of your poor-suffering-me-waaah! bullshit.

The noise is nothing—but it’s also EVERYTHING. Knowing the rational, logical truth does not destroy the irrational, crazy, madness. If only that worked!

XXX

This noise has kept me from working on this book for months on end. As I said, as soon as I opened the file, pulled up a chapter for revision, the noise would start screaming abuse, and that would be that. I’d hesitate. And in that hesitation, all would be lost. Because I’d believe the spin, the lies. Nobody needs to see this crap, Bedford. Put it away. Do everyone a favour. There’s a good boy. Nobody likes a show-off.

The noise lies to me, just as it does to everyone. I know not to pay attention to it, to disregard it. To regard it the way you’d regard the TV in a doctor’s waiting room—face away from it, ignore anything you hear, concentrate on a book, etc. I know the drill. I’ve been through this routine many times, and I’m good at it. It’s how I got this far. You ignore it as much as you can, and remind yourself that it’s just a sickly pale homonculus behind a curtain with a mixing desk. You can’t make the noise go away. It is hardwired into the physical structure of the brain. It is there for keeps, the homonculus, pale and spidery, screaming itself hoarse about children and show-offs. You have to find a way to coexist with it, and you do that by tuning it out the way you tune out the background noise of a radio playing somewhere nearby.

Noise, noise, noise. It’s never actually quiet in my head, but sometimes it seems quiet. Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking the noise is sleeping. Maybe it’s tiring keeping that racket going? All I know is that ever since I started this book, the noise has been truly desperate to get me to stop. Because when I’m writing I’m free. The noise can’t touch me here. I’m out. When I stop, and I’m done, and put it up online, then it comes back, and it’s furious, and it sticks its knives into me, and tells me how people on Facebook hate me and wish I would stop, and I burn with embarrassment and anxiety and fear.

But when I’m doing the writing itself, hitting the keys, like now, piecing it all together, hearing the words unspool in my head?

There’s no noise at all.

MEMOIR: EPILOGUE: FEELS LIKE A BEGINNING

MEMOIR: EPILOGUE: FEELS LIKE A BEGINNING

I finished my weight-loss project recently. 7 December last year, just three days before my projected “Landing Day”. Getting there, the final few months, with my “low-food program”, was almost impossibly hard. By the end—I’m crying, believe it or not, as I write this—I was forcing myself to subsist on just 2500 kilojoules of food per day, because I was so unbelievably desperate to reach my target weight.

It was harder than I ever imagined it would be, and it was just as hard on Michelle, who had to live with me, who felt it every day when I weighed myself and the scales said I was 100.3 kilograms, or 100.2 kilograms, or 100.4 kilograms. She heard the sharp intake of breath, felt the tension in the air. She felt the way I just wanted to scream and never stop screaming. The day when the scales said 100.1 kilograms.

100.1.

I always weighed myself at the same time every day. I had to have reliable data. It had to be consistent. I needed it for my graph. I spent a lot of time looking at that graph. And in the final six months, during the low-food days, as I starved myself, as I consumed myself, I stared and stared at the uncanny straight line leading down towards my target.

Before I started the low-food program, when I was just a regular weight-loss guy, before my medication was changed, before Nortriptyline entered my world, my graph was all over the place, up, down, up again, but mostly down. Trending down. It was fine. My weight was floating down like a drifting leaf fallen from a tree. People said I looked great, and asked me what was my secret.

But once I turned to low-food, the weight came off fast and easy. Four kilos a month, no problem.

No problem except I was always, always hungry. One small meal a day, at lunch. The rest of the time, nothing. Nothing but numbers. Kilojoules. Kilograms. Adding up, over and over and over. Projections, thinking about your weight today, your weight yesterday, and based on your recent figures, when you might hit your next milestone weight. So many numbers.

In the early months I had boundless energy. I wrote all the rest of this book. I wrote most of another book. I took up language lessons. There was nothing I couldn’t do. It was an extraordinary time in my life, unequalled before and certainly not since.

Those early glory days on the low-food program faded. Things started to get harder; there was friction in my thinking. I couldn’t write so easily, or so much, or so often. Soon, I couldn’t write much at all, except here and there—but only in the way, when you have heavy side-effects from medication, and your mouth goes dry, you can only talk if you rehearse what you want to say first, and then take time to work up a lot of spit in your mouth. Then you can say your piece in one go, and it’s fine, and you hope nobody has follow-up comments. Writing in the latter months of last year was like that for me.

Because I was, literally, starving.

XXX

When I was close to my target weight, I told my psychologist how dreadful I was feeling. I was exhausted. I was more than ready for the whole ordeal to be finished. Michelle, perhaps, even more so. I had, a long time ago, entertained ideas of celebrations to mark the occasion of reaching the target weight. But by the time I was in the vicinity, it was clear I was a physical and emotional wreck. In no way was I up for any kind of celebration.

My psychologist referred me to a specialist clinic, the Swan Centre, which deals with people who have problems with food and eating.

They took one look at the state of me, and told me I had a form of anorexia nervosa.

They also told me I was suffering from a condition called “Starvation Syndrome”. The notable feature of which is where the brain, deprived of nutrients, shuts down all but non-essential services and functions. You become a potato. You lose interest in almost everything. You lose the ability to read and write anything substantial. Say goodbye to novels, short stories, magazine articles. You tune out of most conversation. Your head fills with something very like static. On my first day at the Swan Centre they gave me an information sheet about Starvation Syndrome. It felt like an arrow intended, designed, built and shot right at me. It was as if they had been secretly inside my head for months, looking at everything, taking notes, snapping photos, and had worked up a detailed report.

It was shaming.

This is why I cry. Five years ago I set out to lose a stack of weight, and I had a crazy, naive goal. I never seriously expected to reach the goal at the time, but what the hey? I’d always been fat, though, and had always hated being fat, had always hated taking up so much space. I always wanted to be small, to be thin. To be a regular size.

I never expected to get anywhere near the target, but as I got closer, the more I wanted to go the rest of the way. It mattered more the closer I got, because I started, bit by bit, to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could do something impossible.

Until it mattered more than life itself.

Did it matter more than Michelle? She might well have wondered that. But no. If she had ever said to me that enough was enough, and this far was plenty, I would have stopped. For nobody else, but I would have stopped for Michelle. Because I love her, and now look, I’m, oh geez.

XXX

At the Swan Centre I’m working with a psychologist and a very cool dietitian. They have me on a “re-feeding” program. I’m slowly being weaned onto eating again (as of this week I’m back up to 4000 kilojoules, and four small meals a day). The fact that I’m here writing again is evidence that this works. My brain is waking up. I’m finding I can do things again.

When I went to see the Swan Centre people I was at 2500 kilojoules once a day. I could barely think. I had been on 2500 for the final two weeks of the program. Before that I had been on 3000, but I had been frustrated. The weight was not shifting. I was desperate. I could not stand it. I felt like something had to give way. It had been such a long time. I was sick of being hungry all the time. All the time! So, out of my mind I twisted the knife of the diet and went down to 2500 kilojoules. It was a tiny amount of food. I logged everything, counting everything. But 2500 is extreme. It’s like a bad movie where the hero and the villain wind up trying to strangle each other, and they’re really going for it. It’s like that. You know it’s bad, that there’s a limit to it. You can’t do it indefinitely. It’s like holding your breath underwater. Sooner or later I was going to have to start eating again.

All I wanted, I told myself, all I wanted was to hit the 100 kilograms. That’s it. And in that final two weeks, every day, it hovered just above the zero. Every single day. 100.2, 100.4. When, at last, “Landing Day” arrived, the scales read, 99.8. By that point I was so weak, so angry, so burned out, so tired—

I was pleased, standing there in my undies and my loose bags and folds of skin. I told Michelle. She was pleased. We went out for lunch. Yay.

2500 kilojoules a day is like the floor at the bottom of a deep ocean trench, an extreme environment. There’s nothing there other than the rubbish that sinks down from the surface. Nothing lives down that far in the darkness. Eating so little food each day, and then spending 23 hours hungry with your thoughts, trying to keep busy, is like that dark sea floor. Cold, lonely, dark, too much time to think. No concentration for anything you might want to do.

One of the things I insisted on each day was chocolate, the good stuff. Lindt 85% Dark Chocolate, two squares, 483 kilojoules. And there, right away, you can see one-fifth of my daily food budget gone just like that. But that chocolate was, in a way, my reason to live. I dreamed about that chocolate. Our fridge was and is full of chocolate.

And that’s the other thing about extreme weight-loss and mental illness and madness and reality distortion and starvation: you stop eating food. You eat kilojoules, units of energy. You might as well eat Lego.

Did I mention madness? Because I’ve got madness. This whole book is about my life with mental illness, and it’s about my weight. I have said it has often been my impression that my depression and my weight, my fat, were each manifestations of one another. That you could carve out a nice chunk of wet, semi-solid depression and hold it in your hand, and squeeze it until the blood comes oozing out; and that you could find yourself kept awake at night by persistent, moody thoughts of fatness. I don’t know if this is the case for other people like me, but it feels that way for me.

And I’ve still got the madness. I wound up losing 67 kilograms of fat, but I didn’t get a new brain, so I’m thin but still crazy. That said, I got down to 98.1 kilograms, slightly surpassing my goal weight of 100 kilograms. I would cheer, but no. I’m pleased to be here at target weight, for as long as I can be here, but I worry, wondering for how long I can hold back the tide. Because that’s the thing. The odds, I gather, are not ever in my favour. I read conflicting reports. Some say it’s possible to hoodwink the body into believing your new weight is your normal weight. Others insist that your original weight will reassert itself and your body will do its best to get back to it. Then some clever bastard comes along and mutters about set-points and flavonoids and who the hell knows? Will I still be under 100 kg this time next year? Next month? I don’t know. It bothers me.

I told my Swan Centre psychologist that I might be thin now but I still feel like a fat man. Like I cast a fat shadow. I can’t escape who I have always been. You can cut the fat off the bacon, but it’s still bacon.

This chapter is at the end, but it’s not the end. I’m suspicious of endings. Of tidy endings, everything resolved. Perhaps that’s it. Nothing with me is resolved. Some might see what’s happened to me—arrived at target weight, medication sorted, new book, huzzah!—as a wonderful, happy ending, full of major achievements. But it’s not. This is just a pause while we catch our breath, grab a bite to eat, some coffee. It’s only the end of Act One. Maybe even just Chapter One. It doesn’t feel like an ending. Maybe it feels like a cliffhanger.

Maybe it feels like a beginning.